Q&A: California Senate candidates Loretta Sanchez and Kamala Harris on policy, politics and the state of their race

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, left, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris in their first and only debate.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

With two Democrats on the ballot for U.S. Senate for the first time, and only one debate between them, it can be hard to tell how they would serve Californians differently.

The Times invited U.S. Senate candidates California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez to answer questions that might help readers get a better sense of the race.

Twitter users submitted some questions via social media, and others came from Times reporters and editors. Each campaign received the same questions. The questions and answers have been edited for length, style and clarity.

If elected, what Senate committees would you ask to serve on? Why?

Harris: I'm focused on winning on Nov. 8 — I'm not going to speculate on any decisions beyond that point. But if I’m fortunate enough to represent California in the U.S. Senate, I’m going to look at committee assignments and all of my work based on how I can have the biggest impact for California and how to position California as a leading voice in the national debate.

Sanchez: I would ask to serve on the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees. These assignments would harness my 20 years of experience as the second ranking Democrat on both these committees on the House side.

What legislation do you intend to file in your first year? Why?

Harris: One of my most immediate focuses will be making college and higher education more affordable. Nationally, the class of 2016 is the most indebted in history, with the average student borrowing more than $37,000 by the time they graduate. As California’s attorney general, I have prosecuted diploma mills and predatory for-profit colleges that leave students with a worthless degree and thousands of dollars in debt. And as a U.S. Senate candidate, I’m proposing a plan to make community college free for all, make college free for families earning less than $140,000 a year, and create stronger protections for students from student loan companies and for-profit colleges. I’m also very eager to continue the work of reforming our criminal justice system and employ a smarter, more data-driven approach to fighting crime.

Sanchez: Immigration reform is our nation's most pressing moral, economic and security imperative, and it will be my first legislative priority. As the co-[chairwoman] of the [Congressional] Hispanic Caucus’ Immigration Task Force, I am ready to lead on this critical issue on day one. Immigration reform must include a broad, inclusive roadmap to citizenship; improvement of existing temporary worker programs; a secure, effective authorization mechanism that treats workers fairly; and rational, humane border control measures. 

Who is your favorite sitting U.S. senator and why?

Harris: There are a number of leaders I admire in the senate, like our current senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who have both fought hard for California's interests and led on so many important issues. I have a lot of respect for the work Cory Booker and Rand Paul are doing to reform the criminal justice system. And Elizabeth Warren has been a tireless fighter taking on the special interests on behalf of working families. While Washington has been consumed by dysfunction, I admire how the women of the senate have been able to find common ground on a number of issues and get real results for our families.

Sanchez: The senator I most look forward to serving with is our own Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Sen. Feinstein combines the wisdom of an experienced statesman with a deep love for and understanding of California and the challenges we face in the years ahead.

Which senator historically would you model yourself after?

Harris: There have been many great California leaders in the senate. One of them was Alan Cranston, for whom I had the honor of interning as a student in college. He was a vigorous proponent of civil rights, social justice and environmental protection and has had a lasting impact on our state.

Sanchez: I would aspire to the breadth of vision, devotion to service and compassion for the working people that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had. RFK has always inspired me and was a leader we all admire, regardless of political party. 

Where in Washington would you live? Do you intend to come back to California on weekends? Will you commit to serve the entire six-year term?

Harris: I’m going to figure out my schedule when the time comes, but I intend to spend a substantial portion of my time in California. It’s the greatest place on earth.

Sanchez: I have an apartment in D.C. 10 minutes away from my office in the Capitol that I share with a colleague. 

It is critical that we elect a senator that does not prioritize political ambitions over the people of California. I served in Congress for 20 years. It takes time to build relationships and to pass impactful legislation. California cannot afford to elect someone who is looking to jump to the next higher office or career move.

If elected, in what ways do you intend to stay connected with Californians?

Harris: I intend to meet with constituents up and down the state on a regular basis. It’s one of the most important parts of the job. In the Senate, I’ll have an open door policy.

Sanchez: I have returned home every weekend for the past 20 years to stay rooted in my district and to work with state and local leaders on critical issues. I love California and will continue to make it my principal place of work and home if elected to the Senate. I look forward to broadening my official mandate, resources and staff operations to coverall of California and to bring a fresh understanding of Southern California to the Senate.                         

There seems to be limited interest in this race in California. Why do you think that is and what can be done to get voters more involved?

Harris: I believe strongly your voice is your vote and your vote is your voice. We all have a stake in this election. As I have been traveling up and down the state meeting with Californians and hearing their concerns, I am optimistic about our future and our potential. With so much hate and division swirling in our political discourse, we are at a moment in time where we as a country must look collectively in the mirror and ask what type of country we want to be. I think the answer is a good one — a country that lives up to ideals our nation was founded upon. I'm working hard to ensure Californians unite and speak with one voice to reject the politics of fear and division, and I will continue speaking to voters in the months and years ahead.

Sanchez: In some ways the highly contentious and polarized presidential race has sucked all the air out of the room. But I believe that is changing and voters are beginning to focus on this senate race. The most recent valid and impartial poll from [Public Policy Institute of California] shows a tightening race and growing support for my candidacy, overwhelming support among Latino voters and a growing realization among Republican and Independent voters that I am the best candidate to represent all Californians in the senate.

As a U.S. senator, would you support federal funding for the proposed Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs? What about the Delta tunnels? What other proposals do you have to deal with California’s water needs?

Harris: California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in our state’s history, and we need an all-of-the-above approach to secure a reliable water supply for our future. Every Californian needs to continue conserving — the cheapest, most effective way to increase our water resources — but we also need to update our aging water infrastructure, improve our storm water capture and storage capacity, and make smart investments in water recycling, purification and desalination.  

It’s clear that the system we have in the Delta is not a sustainable solution for anyone. I support the coequal goals of a Delta conveyance of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. It's the largest estuary on the West Coast and is in danger of collapse. I support a new Delta conveyance that meets those coequal goals, clears state and federal environmental review processes without undermining the Endangered Species Act, and has a viable finance plan.

While every storage project must be reviewed on its merits and must meet our environmental laws, I am skeptical of the idea that we can dam our way out of drought.

Sanchez: I have devoted much of this campaign to the water crisis, inspected every component of our water infrastructure and walked the dusty fields of the Central Valley with our farmers and growers. I know first hand the gravity of the water crisis facing California. Twenty years ago I championed and secured federal funding for the groundwater reclamation project in Orange County, which is the world’s largest advanced water purification system for potable reuse and produced critical relief to Orange County in the present drought. I support broad efforts to expand and secure our water supply because our economy and growth depend on it. I support the Delta Tunnel project and I am a co-sponsor of Sen. Feinstein's drought relief bill in the House. I am committed to finding environmentally sound ways to increase our water supply and transferring water resources to the hardest hit regions. 

Do you support the Trans Pacific Partnership [a large trade deal with several Asian countries] in its current form? Why or why not? If you want changes, please be specific.

Harris: I don't support [the Trans Pacific Partnership] in its current form. While I support finding ways to increase exports for U.S. goods and expanding trade opportunities, I will oppose any trade deal that doesn't look out for the best interest of workers and risks invalidating California's landmark climate change and environmental laws. TPP did not meet that threshold. I also have concerns about the process of coming to the agreement and the lack of transparency, especially while Congress was debating fast-track authority [which gives the president authority to negotiate a deal].

Sanchez: I have consistently opposed the TPP, because it does not provide sufficient protections of American intellectual property, human rights guarantees and safeguards, and protections against the drain on American manufacturing jobs and development. The TPP will force American workers to compete with workers in countries that offer little to no employee protections, in addition to poor human rights records. This will undermine development and manufacturing in California and I oppose it.

What changes to Social Security benefits would you support to keep the system solvent for the next 50 years? If you support an increase in benefits, how exactly would you pay for that increase? Would you support tying Social Security cost of living adjustments to inflation through a chained Consumer Price Index?

Harris: I strongly oppose cutting Medicare or Social Security, and I don't support chained CPI. Budgets are about priorities, and I believe strongly that we shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable — our seniors, children, the poor and those who aren't able to work. There are a number of proposals that would lift the cap on Social Security taxes to ensure the wealthiest pay their fair share into our system, and that's where I would focus.

Sanchez: We must keep Social Security solvent. I support lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes. Raising, or removing, the cap would ensure benefits are paid out for future generations. I support expanding the system to cover people who leave employment to care for a sick family member. People that get behind on Social Security qualifications should not be left behind. I oppose a chained CPI to calculate the cost of living adjustments as it has been shown to reduce payments over time. I would like to see CPI overhauled to ensure it accounts for modern purchases of goods and services.

How would you expand clean air and clean energy in California beyond President Obama’s Clean Power Plan?

Harris: As attorney general, I've defended California's landmark climate change legislation from attacks by Big Oil, and I helped defend the President's Clean Power Plan. But Congress has failed to act on this issue and refused to pass broad climate protections like we have in California. I'll take California's leadership to Washington and fight hard to pass national climate change legislation that makes our air cleaner, invests in renewable energy and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.

Sanchez: I applaud President Obama’s Clean Power Plan as well as the tremendous work the administration has done to preserve our environment for future generations. However, this is not nearly enough. I am proud that California leads the nation on climate action, especially with the recent passage of cap-and-trade and SB32 [the state’s new climate change law]. I will continue to support legislation that protects our environment in the U.S. Senate and ensure California continues to be a leader on clean air and energy.

How can we improve education for immigrants and refugees in the United States? What about refugees abroad?

Harris: While politicians in Washington have used the politics of fear and hate to divide people by race and religion, I believe we must treat immigrants and refugees with the utmost respect and human dignity, in keeping with the ideals of our nation. Leading with our values is not only the right thing to do, it also makes us safer and more prosperous. As attorney general, I secured thousands of hours of pro-bono legal representation for undocumented children fleeing violence in Central America, and I believe strongly that all children who live in this country — regardless of immigration status or country of origin — should have access to our schools and financial aid. I believe that education is a fundamental human right, and we must do everything we can to use our influence in the world to help girls and boys receive equal educational opportunities.

Sanchez: Regardless of citizenship, immigration status or nationality, I believe we must fully invest in our children. For me, this is personal. I was raised by immigrant parents from Mexico who, like all other immigrants, came to the U.S. for the opportunity of a better life. My parents came to this country speaking almost no English and without much money in their pockets, but were able to provide their children the best education possible. We must continue to invest in programs like Head Start and ensure all families have access to such programs. I would incorporate DACA and expanded DACA principles into immigration reform. We must combat hateful rhetoric and remember that refugees, mostly children, are fleeing from terrorism and war. As refugees resettle in the United States, it is imperative we have the right transition process in place to successfully integrate refugees, especially children, into this new society and all of this starts with providing a safe environment for them to learn.

What is your position on Prop 1A of 2008, High-Speed Rail? Why?

Harris: We have profound unmet transportation infrastructure needs in California, and I support the governor's high-speed rail project as part of a broader strategy to invest in our future, create jobs, and reduce congestion and air pollution. As with all capital projects, we need to monitor it for cost overruns and delays. But more broadly, we must invest in our crumbling infrastructure now — it's good for our economy and will help fuel long-term growth.

Sanchez: I fully support Prop 1A and took actionable steps to make the high speed rail a reality. Along with the California delegation, I requested federal funding for the project and secured an additional $624 million to fund the high-speed-rail. Before ground is broken on this project, I hope to see all interested parties at the table to discuss routes and stops so there are no disproportionate effects during the construction of this project.

What would you do to support the families affected by having incarcerated loved ones? Where you stand on the criminal justice reform bill being weighed in Congress?

Harris: I have long advocated for a smarter criminal justice system, one that uses a data-driven approach and innovation to make us safer and our system more effective. We need to put an end to mass-incarceration and that means providing educational and economic opportunities, ending bans on government benefits and curbing draconian sentencing laws for drug and non-violent crimes. I strongly support Sens. [Cory] Booker and [Rand] Paul's sentencing reform efforts, and I hope to build on their work should I be elected.

Sanchez: I have long supported criminal justice reform, and I support programs to alleviate the suffering of families with incarcerated loved ones. I support the criminal justice reform bill in Congress as it attempts to reform our criminal drug sentencing laws, which disproportionately target people of color. As a nation, we must reduce recidivism, shift towards rehabilitation, and work to eradicate institutional bias embedded in our justice system. I am also the only U.S. Senate candidate to endorse Proposition 62, which will end the death penalty in California.

How would you address the country’s more than $19 trillion national debt? One of the first votes in the new year will be to raise the debt ceiling, would you support raising it no strings attached or would you ask for financial reforms?

Harris: We can't play political games with the full faith and credit of the United States, like we saw with the government shutdown and numerous near-defaults. Our leaders in Washington need to act like reasonable adults and keep the government funded — not legislate by crisis. Budgets are about priorities and it’s my firm belief we should make far-sighted investments in education, job training, water and transportation infrastructure and renewable energy that can fuel and sustain long-term economic growth. These investments are essential for our global competitiveness in a 21st century economy.

Sanchez: As a Blue-Dog Democrat, I have pushed for financial reforms and looked at ways we can balance the budget. Over 50% of our discretionary budget is allocated to defense. As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, I have continuously called on the Department of Defense to find and eliminate wasteful spending. We must maintain our military advantage, but oversight and accountability on this country's major air and land defense programs … will yield critical savings. I voted against the Iraq War, which has shown to be one of the most expensive foreign policy blunders in American history. In the case of the debt ceiling, it is not a blank check, but an agreement to pay for goods and services the government has already received and until we can finally balance our budget we have the responsibility to ensure Americans are not left without necessary services.

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